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FR: Pro Football Hall of Fame 2011 Class

Deion Sanders (left) and Marshall Faulk should lead the class of 2011

Each year on FootballRelativity.com, we compare the 17 Hall of Fame finalists in terms of whom we think should be elected. So here’s a look at this year’s contenders for enshrinement in Canton. (Here are links to a comparison of last year’s finalists, and thoughts on the class that was elected.)

Jerome Bettis– Running Back – 1993-95 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1996-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (first year eligible)
Tim Brown – Wide Receiver/Kick Returner – 1988-2003 Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (repeat finalist)
Cris Carter – Wide Receiver – 1987-89 Philadelphia Eagles, 1990-2001 Minnesota Vikings, 2002 Miami Dolphins (repeat finalist)
Dermontti Dawson– Center – 1988-2000 Pittsburgh Steelers (repeat finalist)
Richard Dent – Defensive End – 1983-1993, 1995 Chicago Bears, 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1996 Indianapolis Colts, 1997 Philadelphia Eagles (repeat finalist)
Chris Doleman– Defensive End/Linebacker – 1985-1993, 1999 Minnesota Vikings, 1994-95 Atlanta Falcons, 1996-98 San Francisco 49ers (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Marshall Faulk – Running Back – 1994-98 Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2005 St. Louis Rams (first time eligible)
Charles Haley – Defensive End/Linebacker – 1986-1991, 1999 San Francisco 49ers, 1992-96 Dallas Cowboys (repeat finalist)
Chris Hanburger– Linebacker – 1965-1978 Washington Redskins (seniors candidate)
Cortez Kennedy– Defensive Tackle – 1990-2000 Seattle Seahawks (repeat finalist)
Curtis Martin – Running Back – 1995-97 New England Patriots, 1998-2005 New York Jets (first year eligible)
Andre Reed – Wide Receiver – 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills, 2000 Washington Redskins (repeat finalist)
Les Richter – Linebacker – 1954-1962 Los Angeles Rams (seniors candidate)
Willie Roaf– Tackle – 1993-2001 New Orleans Saints, 2002-05 Kansas City Chiefs (first year eligible)
Ed Sabol– Founder/President/Chairman – 1964-1995 NFL Films (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Deion Sanders – Cornerback/Kick Returner/Punt Returner – 1989-1993 Atlanta Falcons, 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1995-99 Dallas Cowboys, 2000 Washington Redskins, 2004-05 Baltimore Ravens (first year eligible)
Shannon Sharpe – Tight End – 1990-99, 2002-03 Denver Broncos, 2000-01 Baltimore Ravens (repeat finalist)

Let’s play relativity. 10 points will be an automatic yes vote, 1 point is someone who should not be a finalist again.
(By the way, all links to players are from the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, which is home to an incredible trove of research. Consider this a recommendation.)

10 – Deion Sanders – Sanders wasn’t the most complete corner ever, but he may have been the best cover man of his or any era. Combine that with his electric returning ability, and you have a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Sanders’ career was a bit strange because he played both in the NFL and in Major League Baseball, and because of his prodigous ego and love of the spotlight he bounced around quite a bit. But there was plenty of substance beneath the flash. The accolades are there – a member of the all-1990s team, eight Pro Bowl appearances and six All-Pro nods, and two Super Bowl rings – but the fact that Sanders at his apex was the scariest player on the field is enough for us. Some voters might be put off by Sanders’ bombastic nature or his unwillingness to tackle, but even those issues won’t be enough to keep Sanders out of the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

9 – Marshall Faulk – Of the three running backs on the ballot for the first time this year, we believe Faulk is the clear-cut leader of the group for first-year enshrinement. Faulk was the ideal running back for the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis because he was just as deadly catching the ball out of the backfield as he was running the ball. He won league MVP honors in both 2000 and 2001 and was part of two Rams Super Bowl teams. And that St. Louis dominance came after an incredibly productive five-year stint with the Colts. Faulk played 13 years, and his rushing total of 12,279 place him 10th all time, below fellow nominees Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis. But Faulk added another 6,875 receiving yards, which is the reason we put him ahead of those two nominees. In yards from scrimmage, Faulk is fourth all time, behind only Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton. That elite company better reflects Faulk’s career. We believe Faulk deserves enshrinement right away, even if it comes at the expense of Martin and Bettis in 2011.

8 – Cris Carter – We don’t get it. For the last two years, we’ve endorsed Carter as a Hall of Famer. In our minds, he’s an easy choice over fellow finalists Andre Reed and Tim Brown at the position, as well as a narrow choice over receiving tight end Shannon Sharpe. But apparently that clump of receivers in the final 17 have kept Carter out. Instead, seniors candidate Bob Hayes and no-brainer Jerry Rice have been enshrined the last two years. Carter will still need to clear Brown and Reed, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Carter has 1,101 career catches to place third all-time. That’s seven more catches than Brown (despite playing one fewer season) and 150 more than Reed. And Carter was always on the list of the five best receivers in the league throughout the 1990s, as shown by his all-decade team accolades. At some point, voters will have to admit the next receiver, and Carter should be the guy.

7 – Ed Sabol – Sabol has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for many years, but he finally crossed into finalist territory this year. He’s become a cause celebre of Peter King and others for his role in creating NFL Films. For nearly 50 years, NFL Films has promoted and propagated the popularity of the NFL. Sabol started NFL Films and worked there until retiring in 1995. It’s hard to compare a contributor like Sabol to a class otherwise filled with players, but if ever a contributor deserved one of the seven Hall of Fame spots, it’s Sabol. Our hunch is that there’s enough momentum behind him that he’ll be inducted now that he has finally made it to finalist status.

7 (con’t) – Richard Dent – We’ve endorsed Dent for enshrinement the last two years, but he’s been passed over for Derrick Thomas in 2009 and John Randle last year. Dent was a dominant force for the classic Bears teams in the 1980s, and he won Super Bowl 20 MVP honors. He has 137.5 career sacks, which doesn’t live up to the total Chris Doleman posted but doesn’t reflect Dent’s dominance. Dent has been a finalist every year since 2005, and at some point he has to get over the hump. Given the defensive crop this year, it may be now or never for Dent. We believe it should be now.

7 (con’t) – Chris Hanburger – It’s never easy for us to evaluate the seniors candidates, but history indicates that most of them win election if they make it past the seniors committee. That bodes well for Hanburger, who started at linebacker for the Redskins for 14 years in the 1960s and 70s. With four All-Pro selections and nine Pro Bowl nods, Hanburger has the resume to merit election, and the fact that he started 135 straight games during the prime of his career is a good sign as well. He had a great career given the fact that he started out as an 18th-round draft pick, and it now appears that this career could well end up in the Hall of Fame.

6 – Shannon Sharpe – Tight end isn’t a prolific position in terms of producing Hall of Famers, and that plus the surplus of receivers have worked against Sharpe in his candidacy thus far. Like Dent, we have endorsed Sharpe the first two years of this post, and we’re doing so again. He merits inclusion, because he was the perfect West Coast offense tight end. He wasn’t an outstanding blocker, but he was effective, and he played a key role on three Super Bowl teams – two in Denver and one in Baltimore. But Sharpe is 250 catches (and counting) behind Tony Gonzalez, which isn’t helping his cause. But Sharpe’s high level of play for championship teams is something Gonzalez can’t rival. Sharpe deserves induction.

6 (con’t) – Les Richter – Richter, already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, played his entire nine-year career for the Rams, who had acquired him in an 11-for-1 deal. He debuted two years after being drafted, after serving in the military, and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons as a linebacker. He also served as a placekicker and even played some center for the Rams. No wonder he was first- or second-team All-Pro in each of his first six seasons. Now that Richter has made it past the seniors committee, the late Richter should find his way into the Hall of Fame.

5 – Curtis Martin – Martin was rarely a great, but he was very good for a long time for the Patriots and Jets. As a result, his accumulated totals put him in the pantheon of the all-time greats. But Martin made just five Pro Bowls in his 11 seasons, and he was an All-Pro just twice and led the league in rushing just once. That makes his candidacy wobbly, despite the fact that he’s currently the fourth all-time rusher in the league. Martin’s going to be an interesting case, because he (like Bettis and future nominee Edgerrin James and Fred Taylor) have monstrous numbers but rare moments of dominance. That, to us, means that Martin doesn’t pass the smell test, at least in his first season. Faulk must go in ahead of Martin, and while Martin leads Bettis, we don’t see room for more than one running back in this year’s class. Maybe Martin will sneak in in the future, but this shouldn’t be his year.

5 (con’t) – Dermontti Dawson – We moved Dawson down a level from last year, because while we would still vote for him, we don’t have a good feeling about his chances. Dawson played 13 years and was a six-time All-Pro, which clearly established him as the best center of the 1990s. He had a long career and was dominant at his position. For Dwight Stephenson a decade before him, that meant induction. But Dawson needs to get in soon, before other linemen like Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, and Jonathan Ogden start hitting the ballot. Otherwise Dawson’s wait will be prolonged.

4- Charles Haley – Haley’s an interesting case, because he was such a big factor for two dynastic teams – the 49ers and the Cowboys. As a result, he has an unprecedented five Super Bowl rings. That’s the cornerstone of his Hall of Fame candidacy. He also played well both as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker, which is a credit to his ability. but his sack numbers – 100.5 – pale in comparison to Richard Dent and Chris Doleman, making it hard to justify choosing Haley over those players. It wouldn’t be a travesty to put Haley in the Hall of Fame, but there are more deserving guys in the group of finalists this year.

4 (con’t) – Cortez Kennedy – When Kennedy first showed up on the Hall of Fame radar, we wrote off his candidacy, but he seems to be a legitimate borderline candidate. He was a dominant defensive tackle for years, although the fact that he played in Seattle his entire career kept him under the radar to some degree. Still, he earned eight Pro Bowl berths and three All-Pro nods, made the 1990s All-Decade team, and won defensive player of the year honors in 1992. Kennedy’s position keeps him from having numbers to bolster his case, but he was a dominant force, and that may be enough to sneak him into a class as a compromise candidate.

4 (con’t) – Willie Roaf – Roaf played in a golden era of tackles, yet he still carved out a niche as an elite left tackle. He wasn’t quite the pass blocker that Walter Jones or Jonathan Ogden were, but like Orlando Pace he was a good pass blocker who also handled his business in the run game. The question is how many of those tackles will get into the Hall of Fame, because Roaf is probably third or fourth in that elite group. With six first-team and three second-team All-Pro nods,  Roaf clearly belongs among those four, and the former Saint and Chief also made the all-decade team for both the 1990s and the 2000s. And coming up for election before the other three guys could help him, since the ballot isn’t as crowded at this point. We could see Roaf getting in, but our sense is that he should probably wait until at least Jones and Ogden of his contemporaries get in first.

3 – Tim Brown – Brown was a terrific player for many years, and the former Heisman Trophy winner is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame based on his Notre Dame career. But we believe he falls just short of the level required to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Brown has 1,094 career catches, placing him fourth all-time. He was also a dynamic return man for much of his career. But Brown never was the dominant receiver of his era – while he was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a 1990s All-Decade player, he wasn’t ever a first-team all-pro. So to us, Brown doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer. We won’t start a riot if he gets in, but like Curtis Martin, Brown falls just below the standard to us.

2 – Jerome Bettis – Bettis is perhaps the trickiest of any of this year’s first-time nominees, because he had a strange career. Here’s the good of his candidacy: He is fifth all-time in rushing yards, thanks to eight 1,000-yard seasons with the Rams and Steelers. He’s also a unique player – the first big back to be a full-time runner instead of a short-yardage specialist. But Bettis made the transition to short-yardage specialist late in his career, and in his last eight years he averaged more than four yards a carry just once. He declined pretty quickly after age 30, and he also had two below-par years early in his career. So while Bettis had four great seasons and impressive career statistics, to us he is not a Hall of Fame back. He certainly falls below Marshall Faulk in the pecking order, and we’d prefer Curtis Martin as well. Bettis’ gregarious nature will help his chances, but ultimately he feels like a lost cause in terms of Canton.

2 (con’t) – Andre Reed – Reed was a great receiver for the Bills’ teams in the early 1990s, and his career total of 951 receptions for more than 13,000 yards is impressive. But he’s not a Hall of Famer. He was never an All-Pro – considered one of the top two receivers in the league in any given year. He was a second-team all-pro just twice. He did make seven Pro Bowls, and he was a key part of Buffalo’s AFC dynasty. But compared to other receivers like Cris Carter, Shannon Sharpe, and even Tim Brown, he doesn’t measure up. That’s why we’ve moved Reed down our comparison vs. last year. Reed belongs in the Hall of the Very Good, not the Hall of Fame.

1 – Chris Doleman – Doleman has been eligible for several years, but he moved into the realm of the finalists for the first time this year. And his chances are tied almost solely to his sack total. He had 150.5 career sacks, good for fifth all-time, and parlayed his ability to get to the quarterback into three first-team All-Pro selections and eight Pro Bowl berths. We’d prefer Richard Dent to Doleman, but strange things have happened in the pass-rushing category in recent years, so we can’t write Doleman off completely. Still, for our tastes he was too much of a one-dimensional player to merit inclusion in Canton.

So who will make it in? We believe Sanders and Faulk are shoo-ins, and we also think Richter and Hanburger will get thumbs up. That leaves three spots. Sabol gets one of those spots, while the other two should go to Carter and Dent. We’ve been wrong on those last two for two years running, but we’ll assert once again that this should be their year.

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Filed under Football Relativity, preja vu, Pro Football Hall of Fame

RP: Drafting NFL superstars – offense

Which positions in the draft give a team the best percentage chance of drafting a superstar? Let’s find out in this post about offense. (For drafting defensive superstars, check out this post.)

Last year leading up to the draft, we took on the project of analyzing which positions in the draft had the greatest boom and bust percentages in two posts (offense and defense). But as we did that project, we realized that there is another level we need to analyze. In the top 16 of the draft (top half of the first round), teams aren’t merely looking for good players – they’re looking for great players. So we are looking at superstar percentages by position this year.

Here’s the methodology: We looked back over the drafts from 1997 to 2008, analyzing the first 16 picks in each draft. We charted how many players were drafted at each position, and then we picked the guys at each position that have become superstars. We left out the 2009 draft, since it’s too soon to indicate that any of those players are superstars. After we make our calls about who the superstars are and find a percentage, we’ll list guys who we left off the borderline of superstars. We did this so that you can change percentages on your own if you disagree with a call about who’s a superstar and who’s not.

We also refigured the bust percentages from last year’s post on offense and included them below, for the sake of analysis.

Quarterbacks
Superstar percentage: 19 percent
Updated bust percentage: 31 percent (4 of 13)
Total picks:
21
Superstars: Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning
Not-quite-superstars: Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper
What we learned: Do you have to take a quarterback at the top of the draft to find a superstar? Maybe not. The relatively low superstar percentage is in large part caused by the high bust percentage at the position, but the emergence of later draft picks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, and the undrafted Tony Romo as upper-echeleon quarterbacks makes the risk of taking a quarterback at the top of the draft even starker. The risk is high, and these stats suggest the reward isn’t really worth it. That won’t stop the Rams from pulling the trigger on Sam Bradford with the first overall pick this year, of course, but it’s another reason that we feel like Jimmy Clausen fits better after pick 20 than in the top 16.

Running backs
Superstar percentage:
39 percent
Updated bust percentage: 17 percent (2 of 12)
Total picks: 18
Superstars: Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Warrick Dunn, Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Fred Taylor
Not-quite-superstars: Jonathan Stewart, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones
What we learned: Not many running backs make their way into the top 16 of the draft – usually 1 or 2 per year – but those who end up going in that portion of the draft actually have a pretty good chance of becoming superstars. In an NFL world where running backs now are more likely to split time, running backs are even less likely to move into the top 16 of the draft. But C.J. Spiller, who perhaps projects in that area this year, could become a terrific complementary back. But it’s hard to see that as a path to superstardom, unless Spiller is as killer as Chris Johnson, which means the superstar percentage at this position is likely headed downward.

Wide receivers
Superstar percentage: 15 percent
Updated bust percentage: 40 percent (8 of 20)
Total picks: 27
Superstars: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Torry Holt
Not-quite-superstars: Lee Evans, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress
What we learned: At another risky position, the number of high draft picks who actually turn into superstars is pretty low. Of course, when guys like Fitzgerald or the Johnsons become superstars, they are true game-changers, but the list is so short that teams rightfully are wary. The questions about Dez Bryant this year (or Michael Crabtree last year) demonstrate this wariness. We’ll see if Bryant can move into the top 16 in the draft or if he’ll find himself outside the top half of the first round.

Tight ends
Superstar percentage:
20 percent
Updated bust percentage: 0 percent (0 of 4)
Total picks: 5
Superstars: Tony Gonzalez
Not-quite-superstars: Vernon Davis, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow
What we learned: Most of the tight ends who find themselves in the first half of the first round have turned into at least good players, although only Gonzalez truly crossed the threshold into superstardom. Still, getting an athletic freak like these guys at the top of the draft seems to be a good bet. It appears unlikely that Jermaine Gresham will find his way into the top-16 this year because of his 2009 injury, but these numbers still indicate that Gresham could have a significant impact.

Offensive linemen
Superstar percentage:
26 percent
Updated bust percentage: 12.5 percent (2 of 16)
Total picks: 23
Superstars: Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Joe Thomas, Chris Samuels, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones
Not-quite-superstars: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jammal Brown, Jordan Gross, Tra Thomas, Bryant McKinnie, John Tait, Kyle Turley
What we learned: We noted last year that the vast majority of the offensive linemen picked in the top 16 are tackles, and many of those guys have made a huge impact at the position. While not all of them are true superstars, the trend is for these guys to become above-average starters if not borderline Pro Bowlers. We could have easily put three or four of the not-quite-superstars at this position into the superstar category, which would have made the superstar percentage at this position jump up. The bottom line is that offensive linemen are good bets at the top of the first round. So the teams that invest in Russell Okung, Bryan Bulaga, and Trent Williams (or any other lineman who sneak into the top 16) are making a very safe bet.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL draft, research project

FR: Most impactful cutbacks

Each year, before free agency opens, we compare the impact of the cuts NFL teams have made using our relativity comparison. The 10 level is reserved for teams that lost the most; the 1 level is for teams that won’t feel the cuts at all. This post compares cuts made before the 2010 league year begins in March as well as cuts made during the first week of free agency, when many roster bonuses were due.

10 – Cardinals (cut FS Antrel Rolle) – Rolle, a former top-10 draft pick, didn’t really hit his stride with the Cardinals until he moved from cornerback to free safety a couple of seasons ago. But at that position, Rolle’s physical skills started to emerge, and he became a quality player. Rolle made his first Pro Bowl this year and seems to just be hitting his stride. But Rolle’s rookie contract, signed five years ago, calls for a $4 million roster bonus as the league year starts and $12 million in total compensation in 2010. That’s too big a bill for the Cardinals, and so they plan to cut him. That will be a loss unless Arizona finds a way to re-sign Rolle, which is still a possibility. Otherwise, Rolle will become one of the few players in his prime to hit the open market, which means he should be able to cash in for a safety-poor team.

9 – Jets (cut RB Thomas Jones and CB Donald Strickland) – Jones became the fourth starting running back from the over-30 crowd to get cut as the Jets decided to save a $3 million signing bonus and a $2.8 million 2010 salary by jettisoning him. A look at the roster shows why the Jets did this, because Shonn Greene shone as a rookie, and Leon Washington is a great complementary back with outstanding speed. But Jones still has a lot more in the tank than most runners his age. He ran for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009, marking his fifth straight season with at least 1,100 yards. That’s an impressive streak for a back who failed to break 700 yards in his first four NFL seasons. Even entering his 11th season, Jones has a lot of tread on his tires, and he can be productive for a team (especially one with a solid offensive line). He won’t make $6 million in 2010 on the open market at age 32, but he should get a decent contract as a No. 1 or a split-carries back somewhere. If he doesn’t, it’s a crime. Strickland played OK as a Jet next season, but with Antonio Cromartie coming in he became expendable. Still, Strickland wouldn’t be a bad nickel corner for someone.

9 (con’t) – Panthers (cut QB Jake Delhomme, FB Brad Hoover, LBs Landon Johnson and Na’il Diggs, and DTs Maake Kemeoatu and Damione Lewis) – The Panthers went into severe cost-cutting mode, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But cutting Delhomme doesn’t save them any money. Instead, the Panthers will still foot the bill for $12.7 million in guaranteed money for Delhomme. Delhomme had a terrible year turning the ball over, and the Panthers couldn’t wait to see if he gets his form back. But he is a great locker-room presence and could be a good mentor for whoever drafts Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen. Still, Delhomme must cut down on turnovers to get many more starts in the league. The Panthers now cast their lot with Matt Moore, who has shown quite a bit of promise in two late-season stints but has never played in games that all mattered. Plus, the Panthers trimmed Hoover, their long-time fullback who is a fan favorite. Hoover isn’t the running threat he was once upon a time, but he never was a big blocker, and as he gets older his effectiveness leaked. Tony Fiammetta will get the first shot to replace him. On defense, the Panthers cut Kemeoatu, a clogging defensive tackle who is recovering from an Achilles injury and was owed $4.3 million in bonuses and salary. Kemeoatu is a nose tackle option for 3-4 teams if he’s healthy. Lewis is more of a slashing tackle in a 4-3, and he played well in his Carolina tenure, but his $5 million 2010 price tag motivated his release. He might be the best defensive tackle on the open market at this point. The Panthers are left to look to reclamation projects Ed Johnson and Tank Tyler and youngsters Louis Leonard, Corvey Ivy, and Nick Hayden at tackle – which will be cheap but probably not good. At linebacker, Diggs started for Carolina but isn’t special. He’s a nice minimum signing for someone. Johnson got a nice deal two seasons ago to come over to Carolina from Cincinnati, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup and deserved to be cut. With youngsters Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Dan Connor, and James Anderson around, Carolina could afford to trim the payroll at linebacker.

8- Eagles (cut RB Brian Westbrook and LB Will Witherspoon) – Westbrook had a terrific eight-year career that was stymied this year by multiple concussions. When he was healthy, Westbrook was a dynamo running and catching the ball, breaking 2,100 yards from scrimmage in 2007, his best season. But injuries often sidelined or at the least slowed Westbrook even before concussion problems popped up this year. Those concussions make Westbrook a dubious gamble for any other team this year, although in a third-down back role he probably has more ability to break free than LaDanian Tomlinson does at this point. But one more concussion should lead to retirement for Westbrook, which will limit his marketability. The Eagles, meanwhile, save $7.25 million in 2010 and hand the reins over to LeSean McCoy, who had a solid if unspectacular rookie season, and fullback/big back Leonard Weaver (a restricted free agent). That’s a pretty good duo to go into 2010 with if the Eagles can get Weaver signed. Witherspoon was brought over in a midseason trade from St. Louis to help a depleted LB corp, but the Eagles need to do better in the offseason if they are to maximize their upside. Witherspoon should hook on elsewhere, but probably not above the league minimum.

8 (con’t) – Dolphins (cut OLB Joey Porter, LB Akin Ayodele, and S Gibril Wilson) – Porter, who had nine sacks last season and 32 in three Miami seasons, asked for his release, hoping for one more payday before his career ends. The mouthy 11-year veteran can still get around the corner on the pass rush, as he showed with 9 sacks in ’09, and that gives him value to 3-4 teams. But Porter’s opinion of himself now outrates his actual performance, and that may deter some teams. Still, for a 3-4 team on the edge of contention like San Francisco or Denver, or a contender like Green Bay, Porter could become a nice third-down option at a medium-range price. Twitter was abuzz with league people like SI’s Ross Tucker and National Football Post’s Andrew Brandt marveling at how Wilson made $24 million in guaranteed money over the last two seasons with the Raiders and Dolphins without playing all that well. It goes to show that Wilson is a decent safety but not much more, and he’s got to be running out of chances to cash in on the open market. Doesn’t he? Ayodele was a system ringer brought in by Bill Parcells two years ago, and Ayodele played OK. He could end up in another Parcells-ish system elsewhere.

7 – Chargers (cut RB LaDanian Tomlinson) – Tomlinson had a great career for the Chargers, but like most running backs in the NFL, he is hitting the wall hard now that he’s 30. LDT hasn’t been the same back the last two seasons, and he’s no longer an elite player as a rusher or receiver. The Chargers redid his contract last year to give him a chance to prove he was back, but Tomlinson was unable to do so, and that made this decision the right move professionally. Now the Chargers will rely more on Darren Sproles as their backfield sparkplug while they look for a back who can carry enough of the load to keep the diminutive Sproles healthy. Tomlinson leaves San Diego as one of the greatest Chargers of all time – the kind of player whose number should be retired by the franchise. Unfortunately, he also leaves as a washed-up running back whose next stop will remind us not of his salad days but of Emmitt Smith in Arizona, Tony Dorsett in Denver, or Franco Harris in Seattle.

6 – Giants (cut MLB Antonio Pierce) – Pierce came over to the Giants as a high-dollar free agent five years ago, and he delivered on that contract by serving as a team leader and a big-time tackler during his tenure, which included a Super Bowl title. But Pierce missed the second half of the ’09 season with a bulging disc in his neck, and with a contract calling for him to make $4.75 million in cash this year, the Giants decided there were cheaper and healthier options. While the Giants don’t have a successor in place, they’ll likely look for a cheaper alternative or perhaps even draft a middle linebacker. Pierce, meanwhile, will look to latch on somewhere as a veteran hand and a locker-room leader, but he won’t come close to his scheduled salary. Instead, he’ll be a veteran minimum guy who becomes a stopgap option for a team looking for MLB or ILB help but not part of the long-term plan.

6 (con’t) – Redskins (cut WR Antwaan Randle El, OG Randy Thomas, CB Fred Smoot, DT Cornelius Griffin, QB Todd Collins, and RBs Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright) – The Redskins completely overhauled their roster with 10 cuts on the eve of free agency. Some, notably Randle El, Smoot, and Griffin, were former high-dollar signees. The Redskins overpaid Randle El, a good third receiver for the Steelers, after he starred in Super Bowl 40. But Randle El never lived up to that big-money deal, topping out at 53 catches in his four seasons in Washington. He’s not more than a third receiver at this point, or maybe a fourth, and the Redskins need to see if youngsters Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas are ready to roll. Griffin didn’t make a ton of impact after coming over from the Giants, and he might be at the end of the road. Smoot never lived up to his early promise in the league, but he’s a decent performer who could land as a nickel back elsewhere. Collins played OK as a backup with the Redskins and could latch on elsewhere in that role. Betts was a long-time Redskin who certainly had his moments, but his inability to stay healthy doomed him. He also is bigger than the normal Mike Shanahan runner. Thomas spent seven years with the Redskins, many of them solid, but he played only two games in ’09 before suffering a triceps injury. Cartwright spent eight years in Washington, mostly as a special-teams player and backup.

6 (con’t) – Chargers (cut NT Jamal Williams and RB Michael Bennett) – Williams has been a terrific nose tackle for many years, but injuries have taken their toll to the point that he no longer makes an impact. He’ll get a job elsewhere, but won’t make much money unless he finds the fountain of youth. Bennett, a former first-round pick, is a bottom-of-the-roster back at this point.

6 (con’t) – Colts (cut DE Raheem Brock, OG Ryan Lilja and QB Jim Sorgi) – Brock played well as the Colts’ third defensive end, and he was versatile enough to play inside, but he never produced huge sack numbers. At age 32, he’s not going to be a big factor on the open market, but given his ability to play inside and out he might be worth a look as a 3-4 defensive end. Lilja, who wasn’t drafted, emerged into a starter at guard for the Colts, but he never was an above-average player there. Maybe he’s the scapegoat for the Colts’ O-line failings in the Super Bowl, or maybe that game showed the Colts that they needed to upgrade the size and talent at that position. Sorgi never did much of anything as Peyton Manning’s backup, and now one of the league’s freer rides is over for him. He wouldn’t be more than a No. 3 QB anywhere else.

6 (con’t) – Browns (cut QB Derek Anderson, WR Donte Stallworth, RB Jamal Lewis and C Hank Fraley) – Anderson had a huge 2007 season for the Browns, making the Pro Bowl, but other than that he hasn’t been able to harness his strong arm with accuracy. Still, Anderson’s resume is better than just about any other quarterback’s on the open market, and he’s at least good enough to compete for a starting spot somewhere. And his age is another asset. You can understand Cleveland cutting him to save $9.45 million in 2010, and Brady Quinn and the newly acquired Seneca Wallace fit the new West Coast system the Browns are using better. But Anderson’s talent will attract some suitors. Stallworth was a big-money acquisition by Cleveland before the 2008 season, but he had just 17 catches on the season. And then Stallworth sat out the 2009 season under league suspension. Those two combined to make cutting Stallworth after he was reinstated a quick decision for the Browns. Stallworth played four four teams between 2005 and 2008, which tells you that his talent tantalizes but doesn’t deliver. Now he has hooked on with Baltimore, a team desperate for receiver help, as a fourth receiver with upside. Lewis, who ran for 2,000 yards and won a Super Bowl in Baltimore, has slowed down significantly in recent years, but he was still able to run for 500 yards and cross the 10,000-yard career mark last season.Cleveland let Lewis go to hand the ball to Jerome Harrison, who finished the season very strongly. The Browns also have James Davis returning from injury after he showed some flashes as a rookie last year. Last season was Lewis’ first campaign out of 9 in his career in which he ran for less than 900 yards, but his yards per carry average has topped 3.6 only once in the last five years. Lewis isn’t committed to retiring, but as Edgerrin James learned last year, the league starts to retire running backs before they think they’re really done. Fraley, a 10-year vet, was a three-year starter in Cleveland, but he lost his starting job last year. He still could fit in as an emergency center somewhere, but he’s not going to be Option A.

5 – Jaguars (cut WR Torry Holt, OT Tra Thomas, and DT Rob Meier) – The Jaguars started another youth movement by sending Holt, Thomas, and Meier packing. Holt and Thomas were free-agent signees last year who were meant to bridge the gap to a group of youngsters. With the development of OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, Thomas became expendable, while Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker surpassed Holt by the end of the season. Both vets are probably still good enough to be backups in the NFL, but they’ll have to do so at prices even more reduced than what they played for last year. Meier, who has been a Jag since 2000, missed all of last season due to injury and might be at the end of the line.

5 (con’t) – Saints (cut DE Charles Grant, OG Jamar Nesbit, and LB Mark Simoneau) – Grant was a former first-round pick in New Orleans who has 47 career sacks with the team, but he never was a game-changer, and after 5.5 sacks last year he became expendable. Nesbit started for the Saints last year but isn’t more than serviceable. Still, he’ll land somewhere else. Simoneau has been too banged up in recent years to contribute.

5 (con’t) – Raiders (cut RB Justin Fargas, DE Greg Ellis, and WR Javon Walker) – Fargas has had his moments as a runner in Oakland, but he got lost in a crowded backfield last season. He’s never been the most durable runner either. The Raiders claimed Fargas flunked his physical when he was released, although Fargas’ rep disputes that. We’ll see if Fargas can get a job as a change-of-pace back elsewhere in the league. The Raiders brought in Ellis last offseason, but the former Cowboy wasn’t able to translate his performance to Oakland. He might be at the end of the line, and that makes saving $2.5 million as the Raiders did an attractive possiblity. Walker is one of the biggest free-agent busts of all time. Walker notched less than 200 yards during his two years in Oakland, but he earned $21 million during that time. As a parting gift, the Raiders will have to pay Walker $2.6 million in guaranteed money in 2010. And you wonder why the Raiders are stuck in the doldrums.

4 – Bengals (cut WR Laveranues Coles) – The Bengals brought in Coles one year ago to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but Coles wasn’t able to make a big impact with 43 catches for 514 yards and five scores. That wasn’t worth his four-year, $28 million contract, and so the Bengals let him go. Cincinnati will need to find someone like a Terrell Owens or Derrick Mason to put across from Chad Ochocinco, and they can probably ink one of those guys more inexpensively than keeping Coles would have been. Coles, meanwhile, will have to hook on somewhere as a veteran No. 3 wideout, and he’ll have to do so at a vastly reduced rate.

3 – Jets (cut CB Lito Sheppard) – Sheppard fell out of favor with the Jets in his first year there after a solid career in Philly, as evidenced by his lack of playoff playing time. But while the Jets won’t miss him, Sheppard is a decent option for teams that miss out on Dunta Robinson or Leigh Bodden in the open market — as long as he doesn’t ask for the moon in his new deal.

3 (con’t) – Bears (cut OLT Orlando Pace and RB Kevin Jones) – Pace was cut one year into a 3-year, $15 million deal because he showed that he’s at (or even past) the end of the line. At his best, Pace was a physical freak who was bigger than most left tackles but nearly as athletic as the best at the position, which shows by the fact that he was first-team all-pro five times during his 12 years in St. Louis. But Pace was abysmal with the Bears last year, and Chicago needs to see if former first-rounder Chris Williams can handle the left side. Pace was scheduled to make $4 million in 2010, but missing that paycheck is softened by the fact that he took home $6 million in 2009. Signing Pace was a worthwhile gamble for the Bears, but it just didn’t work out because Pace’s decline is so steep at this point. Jones, a former first-round pick in Detroit, never was healthy enough to contribute in Chicago. With Chester Taylor’s arrival, having another veteran backup runner became superfluous for the Bears.

3 (con’t) – Lions (cut DEs Jared DeVries and Dewayne White, DT Grady Jackson, and CB Phillip Buchanon) – DeVries has been a Lion since 1999, but he missed the entire 2009 season with an Achilles injury. And while this might look like a cut designed to save Detroit $1.3 million, DeVries actually asked for his release in order to hit the free agent market early. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but he can be solid against the run and may be big enough at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds to play end in a 3-4. The Lions also want DeVries back, but likely at a lower price. Hopefully for DeVries’ sake, getting released before the market opens will help him find a gig more easily. Buchanaon started 11 games for the Lions last year, and he’s had an up-and-down career with four teams after entering the league as a first-round pick. He’s a marginal NFL starter at this point. Jackson is a massive defensive tackle who isn’t always in shape but who usually plays at a decent level. He’ll end up elsewhere too. White once got a five-year, $29 million deal from the Lions, but after recording 13 sacks in his first two Detroit seasons he failed to get even one last year. The Lions save $5 million this year by moving on from White, whose spot was taken by free-agent Kyle Vanden Bosch anyway.

2 – Broncos (cut DE Kenny Peterson, C Casey Wiegmann and RB LaMont Jordan) – Peterson, a seven-year vet, became a starter for the first time in Denver last year, but when the Broncos added Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green Peterson was released. He’s probably more of a backup 3-4 end than someone who should be starting. Wiegmann had a solid career with Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, the Jets, and Indianapolis as a guard and center. Wiegmann, whom we tabbed as the best No. 62 in the league this year, made the Pro Bowl for the 2008 season, but as the Broncos change blocking schemes Wiegmann’s zone-blocking prowess no longer fits.But he still has enough veteran wile to fit in somewhere if he wants to keep playing. The Broncos also released RB LaMont Jordan, who has bounced around to several teams over the past few years.

2 (con’t) – Patriots (cut TE Chris Baker) – Baker didn’t make much of an impact in his single season with the Pats, catching just 14 passes for 142 yards and two scores. He’s a tick above average as a receiver if he still has his speed, but he’s not going to be any more than a one-year option on the open market. It’ll be interesting to see what the Patriots do at tight end with Baker released and Ben Watson hitting the free agent market. Could Jermaine Greshman be in their sights?

1 – Chiefs (cut OG Mike Goff and WR Devard Darling) – Goff, a 12-year veteran, started seven times for the Chiefs in 2009, his first year with the team after a career in San Diego and Cincinnati. But in a rebuilding movement, Goff’s experience and higher price tag simply didn’t fit. Darling, a former third-round pick in Baltimore, didn’t pan out when the Chiefs gave him a second chance.

1 (con’t) – Buccaneers (cut Ps Josh Bidwell and Dirk Johnson and CB Torrie Cox) – Bidwell spent six years in Tampa, but he missed the ’09 season. Johnson filled in for Bidwell, but not particularly well. Cox spent seven seasons in Tampa but started just four games in that span.

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Ta-Ta to two tackles

Two long-term left tackles are in the news this week, as Redskins OLT Chris Samuels is set to announce his retirement, and as the Bears released OLT Orlando Pace. Here are thoughts on the careers on both guys as they near the end of their careers. We’ll compare Samuels to other retiring types later this offseason, and we’ll compare the Pace cut to other key cutbacks in a post on Thursday.

In Washington, Samuels made six Pro Bowls over his 10-year career with the Redskins, but after suffering a stinger five games into the ’09 season, he decided he wasn’t healthy enough to keep playing. Samuels wasn’t the top left tackle of the 00s decade – he fell behind Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, and even Orlando Pace – but he was on the next level down as a quality Pro Bowler who was reliable season after season. He started all 141 games he played, and before his ’09 injury he had missed just eight games over nine seasons. He had a great run in Washington and will be missed by the Redskins organization.

In Chicago, Pace was cut one year into a 3-year, $15 million deal because he showed that he’s at (or even past) the end of the line. At his best, Pace was a physical freak who was bigger than most left tackles but nearly as athletic as the best at the position, which shows by the fact that he was first-team all-pro five times during his 12 years in St. Louis. But Pace was abysmal with the Bears last year, and Chicago needs to see if former first-rounder Chris Williams can handle the left side. Pace was scheduled to make $4 million in 2010, but missing that paycheck is softened by the fact that he took home $6 million in 2009. Signing Pace was a worthwhile gamble for the Bears, but it just didn’t work out because Pace’s decline is so steep at this point.

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Jersey Numbers: Offensive Linemen

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post. Now we move to offensive linemen, who wear numbers between 60 and 79, although some wear numbers in the 50s.

One more thing: Because offensive linemen are harder to evaluate statistically, my choices may be different than yours. We’ve tried to at least mention each lineman who has started a game this season plus a few significant guys who have not played yet this season due to injury. Leave a comment to let me know where I’m crazy, and we may change the jersey number winners when we make a final judgment of the best players league-wide by number.

50 – Ben Hamilton, Broncos – Hamilton has been with the Broncos for nine years and is still a starter, with seven starts this year at left guard. He’s also started at  center in his career for a line that is almost always above-average. Other notable 50: Edwin Williams, Redskins

51 – Dominic Raiola, Lions – Raiola has been with the Lions since 2001 as a center, and he continues to serve as a full-time starter. The team re-signed him to a four-year deal in the offseason. Other notable 51: Chris Morris, Raiders

54 – Brian Waters, Chiefs – Waters joined the Chiefs in 2000 as an undrafted free agent, and he has become a Pro Bowl-caliber guard. Although his performance is slowly starting to slip with age, Waters still earned Pro Bowl honors last season (for the fourth time) and has started all 11 games this season. Other notable 54: Eugene Amano, Titans

55 – Alex Mack, Browns – Mack was the Browns’ first-round pick last April, and he has started all 11 games this season at center for Cleveland. He’s one of just five rookie linemen to start every game this season. Other notable 55: Chris Myers, Texans

57 – Olin Kreutz, Bears – Kreutz has long been one of the league’s top centers, and he has started almost since he first entered the league back in 1998. The six-time Pro Bowler is also considered one of the leaders of the Chicago locker room.

59 – Nick Cole, Eagles – Cole has emerged as a full-time starter this season for the first time, seizing the right guard job from Max Jean-Gilles and starting every game thus far.

60 – Chris Samuels, Redskins – Samuels has missed several games this season with a neck injury that could end up being career ending, but this is a nod to his long, terrific career. So we opt for him over two solid centers, Shaun O’Hara of the Giants and Jason Brown of the Rams. Other notable 60s: Brad Butler, Bills; D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets; Max Unger, Seahawks; Ike Ndukwe, Chiefs

61 – Nick Hardwick, Chargers – Hardwick missed much of the season with a knee injury he suffered in Week One, and it’s no coincidence that the Chargers’ running game has struggled in his absence. The former Pro Bowler’s return in the final month of the season should give the Bolts a jolt. Other notable 61s: Stephen Neal, Patriots; Casey Rabach, Redskins

62 – Casey Wiegmann, Broncos – Wiegmann, who has played for the Jets, Bears, and Chiefs as well as his current team, the Broncos, made his first Pro Bowl with Denver last year. He has started 138 straight games for the Bears, Chiefs, and Broncos, which is the best total for any center in the league. Other notable 62s: Andy Alleman, Chiefs; Justin Hartwig, Steelers; Max Jean-Gilles, Eagles; Brandyn Dombrowski, Chargers; Nate Livings, Bengals; Todd McClure, Falcons; Chilo Rachal, 49ers

63 – Jeff Saturday, Colts – No offensive lineman is as essential to his quarterback as Saturday is to Peyton Manning. Saturday can keep up with Manning’s constant audibles and check-with-mes and make just the right line calls to keep his signal-caller protected. No wonder Saturday is a three-time Pro Bowler with a new, long contract from the Colts. Other notable 63s: Jacob Bell, Rams; Justin Blalock, Falcons; Roberto Garza, Bears; Dan Connolly, Patriots; Geoff Hangartner, Bills; Kyle Kosier, Cowboys; Brad Meester, Jaguars; Scott Mruczkowski, Chargers; Manny Ramirez, Lions; Lyle Sendlein, Cardinals; Will Montgomery, Redskins; Scott Wells, Packers; Chris White, Texans; Bobbie Williams, Bengals

64 – Jake Grove, Dolphins – The Dolphins brought Grove over as a high-dollar free agent to bring a more physical style of play to their center position, Ironically, Grove was replaced in Oakland by another 64, Samson Satele, the man he replaced in Miami. The Dolphins were happy with the trade. Other notable 64s: David Baas, 49ers; Zach Strief, Saints; Kasey Studdard, Texans; Anthony Herrera, Vikings; Kyle Cook, Bengals; Leroy Harris, Titans

65 – Andre Gurode, Cowboys – Several quality lineman, including OGs Eric Steinbach of Cleveland and Brandon Moore of the Jets, wear 65. But Gurode has made the last three Pro Bowls at center for Dallas, so he gets the nod. Other notable 65s: Louis Vasquez, Chargers; Jeremy Trueblood, Buccaneers; Mark Tauscher, Packers; Chris Spencer, Seahawks; Justin Smiley, Dolphins; John Sullivan, Vikings; Ryan Lilja, Colts; Barry Sims, 49ers; William Beatty, Giants; Mike Brisiel, Texans; Chris Chester, Ravens

66 – Alan Faneca, Jets – Faneca has long been one of the best guards in the league, and he’s provided a jolt for the Jets in his two seasons there since moving from his long Steelers tenure. So he still gets the nod over fellow guards David Diehl of the Giants and Derrick Dockery of the Redskins. Other notable 66s: Cooper Carlisle, Raiders; Jeromey Clary, Chargers; Kyle DeVan, Colts; Hank Fraley, Browns; Ben Grubbs, Ravens; Evan Mathis, Bengals; Stephen Peterman, Lions; Mark Setterstrom, Rams; Mansfield Wrotto, Seahawks; Donald Thomas, Dolphins

67 – Jamaal Jackson, Eagles – Jackson, a former undrafted free agent, took over the Eagles’ starting center job midway through the 2005 season and has started every game since. We’ll give him the nod over another good young center, Ryan Kalil of the Panthers. Other notable 67s: Josh Beekman, Bears; Joe Berger, Dolphins; Dan Koppen, Patriots; Andy Levitre, Bills; Vince Manuwai, Jaguars; Kareem McKenzie, Giants; Rob Sims, Seahawks; Tony Ugoh, Colts; Damien Woody, Jets

68 – Kevin Mawae, Titans – Mawae has long been one of the league’s best centers, and last season he returned to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2004. He gets the nod at this number over OG Kris Dielman of the Chargers, who has made the last two Pro Bowls. Other notable 68s: Doug Free, Cowboys, Richie Incognito, Rams; Jon Jansen, Lions; Chris Kemeoatu, Steelers; Seth McKinney, Bills; Frank Omiyale, Bears; Keydrick Vincent, Panthers; Adam Snyder, 49ers

69 – Jordan Gross, Panthers – Although Gross has been shelved for the rest of the season, he has been a top-level player both at right tackle and now at left tackle. He made his first Pro Bowl last year at a left tackle, and his mauling style makes him solid blocking for the run as well as the pass. That gives him the nod over Giants OG Rich Seubert. Other notable 69s: Mike Gandy, Cardinals; Jamon Meredith, Bills; Steve Vallos, Seahawks; Chester Pitts, Texans

70 – Leonard Davis, Cowboys – Davis, a massive guard, has made the last two Pro Bowls, even though his size can get out of hand and limit his quickness. Still, he’ll get the nod over OLT Jamaal Brown, who has missed the whole season for the Saints, and youngsters OT Donald Penn of Tampa Bay, OG Logan Mankins of the Patriots, and OG Travelle Wharton, who has moved to left tackle to fill in for Jordan Gross in Carolina. Other notable 70s: Khalif Barnes, Raiders, Alex Barron, Rams; Rex Hadnot, Browns; Daniel Loper, Lions; Langston Walker, Raiders; Eric Wood, Bills; T.J. Lang, Packers

71 – Michael Roos, Titans – For years, 71 has been the domain of Seahawks great OLT Walter Jones, but Jones has missed the entire season. So we’ll give the nod here to Roos, a left tackle who made the Pro Bowl last year for the first time. He gets the nod over Jason Peters of the Eagles, who hasn’t played the last couple of years at the same level he performed at around 2007; young Ravens OLT Jared Gaither; and Vikings rookie ORT Phil Loadholt. Other notable 71s: Russ Hochstein, Broncos; Kendall Simmons, Bills; John Wade, Raiders; Josh Sitton, Packers

72 – Vernon Carey, Dolphins – Carey is turning into a solid right tackle for the Dolphins. He has incredible size, which is part of the reason that the Dolphins spent so much to re-sign him in the offseason. We’re giving him the nod over two-time Pro Bowl OLT Matt Light of the Patriots, who seems to be starting to decline as a player. Other notable 72s: Sam Baker, Falcons; Erik Pears, Raiders; Tra Thomas, Jaguars; Jason Spitz, Packers; Ryan Tucker, Browns; Darnell Stapleton, Steelers

73 – Jahri Evans, Saints – Earlier this week, I heard ESPN’s Trent Dilfer call Evans the best guard in the league. Steve Hutchinson might argue, but that’s enough for us to give Evans the nod over a strong field of 73s that includes OT Marcus McNeil of San Diego, OG Harvey Dahl of Atlanta, OT Joe Thomas of Cleveland, and OT Eric Winston of Houston. Other notable 73s: Shawn Andrews, Eagles; Mackenzy Bernadeau, Panthers; Eben Britton, Jaguars; Kirk Chambers, Bills; Daryn Colledge, Packers; Anthony Collins, Bengals; Adam Goldberg, Rams; Chris Kuper, Broncos; Marshal Yanda, Ravens; Ramon Foster, Steelers; Jake Scott, Titans

74 – Nick Mangold, Jets – Mangold, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, has emerged as one of the league’s best young centers. Now in his fourth season, he looks like he’ll be a preeminent linemen for years to come. So we give him the nod over massive Vikings OLT Bryant McKinnie and standout rookie Ravens ORT Michael Oher, whose story is told in the outstanding movie The Blind Side. Other notable 74s: Jermon Bushrod, Saints; Willie Colon, Steelers; Cornell Green, Raiders; Ryan Harris, Broncos; Stephon Heyer, Redskins; Winston Justice, Eagles; Joe Staley, 49ers; Chris Williams, Bears; Damion Cook, Lions; Charlie Johnson, Colts; Dennis Roland, Bengals; Wade Smith, Chiefs; Will Svitek, Falcons; Reggie Wells, Cardinals; Maurice Williams, Jaguars; Ray Willis, Seahawks

75 – Davin Joseph, Buccaneers – Joseph isn’t well known, but he’s part of a solid Buccaneers line. The right guard made his first Pro Bowl last season. Other notable 75s: Levi Brown, Cardinals; Marc Colombo, Cowboys; Eugene Monroe, Jaguars; Chad Rinehart, Redskins; Robert Turner, Jets; Ryan O’Callaghan, Chiefs; Nate Garner, Dolphins; Mario Henderson, Raiders

76 – Steve Hutchinson, Seahawks – At a loaded number, Minnesota’s Hutchinson is the best of the bunch. He’s the highest paid guard in the league, and he’s earned every penny of that deal by playing like the best guard in football for many years now. He’s a big reason the Vikings’ run game is so potent. So he gets the nod over OLT Flozell Adams of Dallas, OG Chris Snee of the Giants, legendary OT Orlando Pace of the Bears, and rookie OT Sebastian Vollmer of the Patriots. Other notable 76s: Branden Albert, Chiefs; Stacy Andrews, Eagles; Jeff Backus, Lions; Chad Clifton, Packers; Robert Gallery, Raiders; Jonathan Goodwin, Saints; Levi Jones, Redskins; Deuce Lutui, Cardinals; Tyler Polumbus, Broncos; Jeremy Zuttah, Buccaneers; Duane Brown, Texans; David Stewart, Titans

77 – Jake Long, Dolphins – Long, the former No. 1 overall pick, has stepped in as a terrific left tackle in Miami. He should be a bellweather left tackle for years in the league. He gets the nod over Baltimore C Matt Birk, who has long been a force, and underrated Bengals OT Andrew Whitworth. Other notable 77s: Gosder Cherilus, Lions; Tyson Clabo, Falcons; Brandon Frye, Seahawks; Nick Kaczur, Patriots; Damion McIntosh, Seahawks; Uchi Nwaneri, Jaguars; Carl Nicks, Saints; Tony Pashos, 49ers; Jason Smith, Rams; Floyd Womack, Browns; Randy Thomas, Redskins; Demetrius Bell, Bills

78 – Ryan Clady, Broncos – It’s a golden era for young left tackles, and Clady may be the best, at least as a pure pass blocker. He gave up his first sack in his season and a half in the NFL earlier this year, which is amazing for such a youngster. He’s a true blue-chipper. Other notable 78s: Allen Barbre, Packers; Jordan Black, Jaguars; Mike Pollak, Colts; John St. Clair, Browns; Max Starks, Steelers; Jon Stinchcomb, Saints; Adam Terry, Ravens

79 – Jeff Otah, Panthers – Otah is another young tackle, only he plays on the right side. He’s a big, physical run blocker who perfectly fits the style that Carolina wants to play. Other notable 79s: Jon Runyan, Chargers; Trai Essex, Steelers; Mike Goff, Chiefs; Todd Herremans, Eagles; Artis Hicks, Vikings; Jonathan Scott, Bills

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

We’ve used Football Relativity for many things this summer, from comparing quarterbacks to comparing rumors to comparing free-agent moves to comparing nicknames. But now it is time to use this Football Relativity pool for what it was originally created – comparing teams to each other.

This is our preseason Football Relativity poll. 10 is the level of the best team or teams; 1 is the level of the worst team or teams. Teams that are on the same level are listed alphabetically, so the order on each level is not a ranking per se. We have no limit on the number of teams on any level, and in the future we may even leave a level empty to show a gap between teams. And this comparison does not attempt to predict record; schedules and other issues could leave teams with worse records on levels above teams with better records. We’ll make division predictions once this post has settled in our minds a bit.

Without further ado, here is the preseason version of Football Relativity. It’s long, but all that means is that your team is covered closely, no matter who your team is. Enjoy.

10 – New England Patriots – The Patriots aren’t a perfect team, but they have enough ability across the board to compare favorably with anybody in the league. The return of QB Tom Brady is obviously a key, and as a welcome-back present the franchise gave its franchise quarterback some grizzled but productive vets – RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, and TE Chris Baker. Those pieces should keep the offense potent, and the offensive line remains solid if unspectacular. The questions for New England are on defense, where Bill Belichick’s schemes are normally extremely dangerous. But New England’s core defensively has gotten kind of old, and the reinforcements have been spottier than you would expect. The premium players are NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren, who are perfect 3-4 guys, and ’08 rookie Jerod Mayo, who brings a playmaking ability at inside ‘backer that the Patriots hadn’t had in recent years. In the secondary, the Pats need vets Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to step up at corner, or else a rookie like Darius Butler needs to step up. But with youngsters like Butler, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Meriweather in the secondary, the Pats have the physical ability, and you have to believe Belichick and his staff can coach them up. As long as Brady stays healthy, this is going to be an elite team.

10 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The defending Super Bowl champs look like they’re loaded for bear again in ’09. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the smoothest quarterback around, but he always shows up in the end. He has vets Hines Ward and Heath Miller as well as emerging youngsters Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl hero) and Limas Sweed to throw to, which makes for a potent passing game. The running game should be better this year with Rashard Mendenhall back from injury to help Willie Parker carry the run game load. Melwede Moore gives some injury assurance there. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was pretty maligned last year, but it’s serviceable, and the Steelers drafted a couple of guys who could raise the level of athleticism in that unit. Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. They know how to draft guys who can play their system, and it shows. They’re 6 deep on the defensive line and at linebacker, with playmakers like James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons there to wreak havoc. Plus, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can do the same. The cornerback position isn’t beautiful, but with enough pressure they can hold steady. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh played the ultimate murderer’s row on its schedule last year – the Steelers catch more of a break this year and may be able to coast a little more late in the season. Regardless, this is a team under Mike Tomlin that can contend again if it keeps its fire.

9 – New York Giants – The Giants are loaded on defense and in the running game, and that’s going to be enough to keep them at the top of the pack in the NFC this season. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, running behind an often unsung but rarely outplayed offensive line, will keep the offense moving down the field. QB Eli Manning makes enough throws to keep the team moving, and while he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver, he has a variety of talented options that should allow him to spread the ball around the field. This team, like the early Patriots Super Bowl teams, may not have a 90-catch receiver but should have three or four or even five with 40 catches or more. That’s difficult for defenses to stop in its own right. On defense, the Giants have reloaded their defensive line by adding Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury. Those guys, plus Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, give the Giants the best D-line in the league. Those linemen create havoc and make enough plays on their own to keep the rest of the defense humming along, but the Giants also have underrated back-seven guys like LB Antonio Pierce and emerging CB Aaron Ross and S Kenny Phillips. This is a deep team at the key DL and RB spots, and that should help the Giants stay at the top of the pack even when injuries come. They’re the class of the NFC as the season opens.

9 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans aren’t a flashy team, but they’re always tough, and that toughness will serve them well again this season. The toughness is reflected in the run game, which stars Chris Johnson and a slimmer LenDale White, but depends on a terrific offensive line led by Michael Roos, who one informal poll (via movethesticks) recently listed as one of the top three linemen in the entire league. The passing game isn’t wonderful, but QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in his career, and the addition of Nate Washington should add a little more pop to the air attack. Defensively, the Titans lose stud DT Albert Haynesworth but still have a four-deep rotation with guys who can make plays. LB Keith Bulluck and CB Cortland Finnegan remain among the league’s elite at their positions as well. The reason the Titans are so good is that they have found and then developed gems like Finnegan (a seventh-round pick) and OT David Stewart (a fourth-round pick). That depth will be tested as the Titans try to replace Haynesworth, but the sense here is that they’ll be able to get enough production at DT to remain a terrific team.

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The team that is making the leap into the upper echelons in the NFL this year is the Falcons, who will build on last year’s surprise to continue moving forward. QB Matt Ryan showed last year that he has the ability and the moxie to be an effective and sometimes even elite-looking quarterback despite his young age. Now, he has all-time great TE Tony Gonzalez as a target, joining top-tier WR Roddy White. Plus, the run game features Michael Turner, a terrific running back, and change-of-pace threat Jerious Norwood. The offensive line played OK last year, and if it can match that level of performance, the offense will once again be dangerous. Defensively, the Falcons rely heavily on DE John Abraham, a pass-rushing demon who had to be spotted last year to keep him healthy. Still, though, he played every game and was a threat throughout. He’s a game-changer who must stay healthy for Atlanta to threaten. Rookie Peria Jerry should help bring a second threat to the front four. The back seven doesn’t have a lot of playmakers, although LB Curtis Lofton could continue to emerge. But this is still a solid defense. The Falcons should follow up last year’s playoff performance with a division title this year, which is an accomplishment in a tough grouping like the NFC South. And a Super Bowl berth, while a bit of a stretch, is within the realm of possibility.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles would have been a level 9 team had they not had two major injuries as camp opened. While MLB Stewart Bradley and TE Cornelius Ingram weren’t cornerstones, they were potential contributors whose losses sting. Still, the Eagles are a dangerous team. QB Donovan McNabb has more weapons than he’s ever had, from star ’08 rookie DeSean Jackson to veteran Brian Westbrook to rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. If Michael Vick finds a role, all the better for Philly. The biggest question on offense is how the offensive line will fare with two new tackles now that Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are gone. Still, though, a solid offensive line has traditionally been Andy Reid’s speciality. On defense, the Eagles should maintain their attacking style even after the death of long-time coordinator Jim Johnson. DE Trent Cole and DT Mike Patterson are not well known, but they make some plays. The stars are CBs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Sheldon Brown, who provide the ability for the Eagles to blitz. The Eagles aren’t quite of the same caliber as the Giants, but they’re a good team that should make the playoffs. And once they get to the postseason, they have the potential to make a run.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league – the question is how often they will play to that talent. Last year, the Chargers only reached an elite level at the end of the season and in the playoff opener, a win over the Colts. But the talent is undoubtedly there. QB Philip Rivers is emerging as a big-time quarterback, and the leadership qualities he has show over the last season and a half are the kind that a championship-level team needs. He has stalwart TE Antonio Gates and burgeoning star WR Vincent Jackson among many targets. Of course, he also has a solid running game with LaDanian Tomlinson, who appears to be healthy once again, and Darren Sproles, a quick-twitch mighty mite who is able to set off the pyrotechnics at any time. Tomlinson isn’t what he was three or four years ago, but spelling him with Sproles will keep the Chargers moving on the ground. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to keep Rivers upright and to open holes for the runners. On defense, the Chargers blossomed once Ron Rivera became defensive coordinator and let the dogs out on the blitz. The return of Shawne Merriman from injury and the addition of Larry English in the first round of the draft gives the Chargers much more pass-rushing pop than they had last season, and that pressure should help CB Antonio Cromartie rebound and continue his development into an elite corner. NT Jamal Williams remains the key to the run defense, and he’s as strong at the point of attack as anyone in the league. The Chargers have the tools; the question is consistency. But if they find that consistency, they’re a big-time Super Bowl threat.

7 – Arizona Cardinals – The Super Bowl loser hangover has been well documented over the years, and often these runners-up finish well out of the playoffs. That could happen to the Cardinals, but on paper this team is good enough to win the NFC West again to get into the postseason. The biggest questions are attitude and coaching, because both coordinators, Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast, are gone.  The offense remains dangerous with QB Kurt Warner and stud WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of rookie RB Beanie Wells will help bring a little more balance to the offense as well, and with Russ Grimm as the run-game coordinator, the ground game could become a bit more featured. The offensive line is good enough to keep the offense running smoothly. While the Cardinals’ offensive power gets a lot of attention, the defense is full of playmakers too. DT Darnell Dockett is a disruptive force, and Arizona hopes and believes that DE Calais Campbell will be the same kind of force this season. At linebacker, Karlos Dansby is a terrific player, and in the secondary S Adrian Wilson is among the best in the league. Even more, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can join the ranks of top-flight playmakers this year after a strong rookie campaign. This is a talented team, especially on defense. The question is whether Arizona can play up to its potential as it finally did in the NFC playoffs last year. The hunch here is that Ken Whisenhunt is a strong enough coach to keep the Cardinals playing reasonably well.

7 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens aren’t the flashiest team, but they are a tough, physical team that is a pain to play and a tough out. In that way, they fit the personality of coach John Harbaugh. It all starts on defense, where the Ravens have several truly blue-chip players. DE Haloti Ngata is among the league’s best front-line players; Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers; Ray Lewis is still a huge presence at middle linebacker; and Ed Reed is the class of the league at safety. It’s remarkable that they have such premiere players at each level of the defense, and that starpower shows game after game. Offensively, the Ravens have a smashmouth offensive line, although the tradeout of Matt Birk for Jason Brown at center is a bit of a downgrade. The running game is dangerous with Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and vet Willis McGahee. The question is the passing game with second-year QB Joe Flacco. Flacco’s targets feature veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both of whom have been so banged up that they’ve lost their explosiveness, and youngsters like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams who have talent and show flashes but aren’t consistent. Unless Flacco takes a sizable leap forward this year, the passing game will end up being what holds the Ravens back from being a division winner and major Super Bowl contender. Still, this is a team no one wants to play.

7 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – Last year, the Packers had a great offense and an abysmal defense. That’s why they’re moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 plan. That kind of transition normally takes a couple of years to make fully because the personnel a team needs in the front 7 to make the switch takes a while to accumulate. But the Packers have done a better job than most teams of piling up that talent to make the switch more quickly. Rookie DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews fit the scheme well, as well as holdovers NT Ryan Pickett and LB Nick Barnett. The questions are DE turned OLB Aaron Kampman, who must prove he can generate pass rush from a two-point stance, and LB A.J. Hawk, who hasn’t really lived up to his top-5 draft position yet. But the front seven is in good shape with the potential to be in great shape, which measn the team can take a big step forward. The secondary features veteran CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris, who played OK last year but must pick it up for the defense to truly shine. On offense, the Packers do shine, thanks to the rapid development of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the luxury of throwing to a deep WR corps led by Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, and RB Ryan Grant is good enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back on the rush. The offensive line is not outstanding, but it did well enough for Rodgers last year. All in all, this is a talented team that could usurp the Vikings in the NFC Central after last year’s 6-10 debacle.

7 (con’t) – Minnesota Vikings – All the news in the offseason for the Vikings has been about Brett Favre, which is understandable but ironic because Favre is probably the weak link for the Vikings team. The question is whether the weak link will break and kill the entire chain. Favre fell apart at the end of last year, and his penchant for turnovers won’t overcome the biggest problem that Tarvaris Jackson had last year. Favre is just as likely to throw the killer pick as Jackson, and he’s more likely to break down because he can’t escape like Jackson can. Jackson is a promising prospect who is now lost to the Vikings emotionally, and that’s a killer. So Favre must play well, or else the Vikings have set themselves back 3-5 years. Brad Childress is all in with Favre, and that’s not a position I would like to be in. The move is a shame, because the Vikes are loaded everywhere else on the field. On offense, RB Adrian Peterson is probably the league’s best, and Chester Taylor is a wonderful complement. WR Bernard Berrian had a fine year as a deep threat in his first year in Minny, and Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe are decent targets as well. Even better, the offensive line is full of road-graders like Steve Hutchinson, still the best guard in the league, Bryant McKinnie, and rookie Phil Loadholt. Defensively, the Vikes star DE Jared Allen, who can play the run well and generate pass rush, and space-filling DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Kevin is the more likely Williams to get penetration and blow up plays. LBs E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are improving as players, and Minnesota has one of the better unsung corners in Antoine Winfield. This is a deep, talented team that would reach the 8 level with Jackson as the starting QB and could be a 9 with a top-8 quarterback. But Favre will cost the Vikings a game or two, and that will be enough to let the Packers or perhaps the Bears sneak past them in the standings. That means their all-in move will end up going bust.

6 – Carolina Panthers – For most of the regular season last year, the Panthers were a level-9 team and one of the best four squads in the league. But they melted down in a home playoff game vs. Arizona, in large part because Jake Delhomme turned the ball over five times. But the Panthers didn’t make many upgrades in the offseason because their salary cap was strapped by Julius Peppers’ franchise tag. The Panthers kept Peppers, at least for one more year, which means they’re all-in with him kind of like the Vikings are with Brett Favre. The gamble has a better chance of paying off in Carolina, because Peppers is still a Pro Bowl-level player. He bounced back from an absentee ’07 season with 14.5 sacks last year, and his pass-rush ability is what gives a solid defense claws. The Panthers lost space-eating DT Maake Kemeoatu to a training-camp injury, which could inhibit Damione Lewis’ underrated ability to get in the backfield. That could also make it harder for MLB Jon Beason to roam and make plays. Still, the Panthers have front-7 playmakers, and the secondary is strong with CBs Chris Gamble (coming off a sterling season) and Richard Marshall. The Panthers’ offense is a running-game clinic. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the beneficiaries, but the real credit goes to a monstrous offensive line starring OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, OG Travelle Wharton, and C Ryan Kalil. There aren’t a lot of weak links in that group. The passing game runs hot and cold because Delhomme does, but it can also fling it to Steve Smith and hope for the best because Smith makes so many plays. This is a star-studded team that could be held back by Delhomme, but if he plays OK they’ll be a playoff contender. Atlanta is the NFC South favorite, but the Panthers remain a threat.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys– It’s unusual that the Cowboys have been overshadowed this offseason, although they created that shadow with Jerry Jones’ massive video board. Regardless, this is a team that hasn’t gotten much attention, but it still has much of the talent that Bill Parcells accumulated while he was there. That shows most on defense, where OLB DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league, and emerging NT Jay Ratliff lead a quality front seven. It would help if OLB Anthony Spencer, like Ware a former first-round pick, steps up to take some pressure off of Ware, who had 20 sacks last year. The secondary has had problems, although CB Terence Newman is a good player. The questions for the Cowboys are on offense. Now that Terrell Owens is gone, Dallas needs Roy Williams to emerge as a big-time receiver. The trade Dallas made for Williams paid for him at that level, and if he doesn’t deliver, the passing game will be a struggle for QB Tony Romo. But if Williams does step up, he and TE Jason Witten can be a dynamic receiving duo. The running game has capable legs in Marion Barber and second-year men Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But the offensive line, which is huge and aging, needs to return to its form of a couple of years ago. This means you, Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis. The Cowboys have talent and can be a playoff team once again, but there are a lot of ifs that have to come through for that to happen, especially in the loaded NFC East.

6 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins catapulted from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, and now the test is to see if they can stay at that level of performance. Given the talent on the roster, that seems unlikely. Miami is full of good but not great players, and they must play at or over the heads again next year if Miami is to make the playoffs again. Chad Pennington is the perfect quarterback for Miami’s style of play, because he makes the right decision and then executes well. He doesn’t have name targets, although Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess have shown talent. It would really help if the Dolphins got some big plays out of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., who has great speed but inconsistent production. The running game features Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and we may eventually see Pat White running out of the Wildcat offense Miami sprung on the league last year. Miami sought to get bigger and better on the offensive line, signing Jake Grove to play center to join huge tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey. On defense, the Dolphins created a pass rush thanks to Joey Porter’s renaissance year at outside ‘backer. It’s hard to see vets like Porter and NT Jason Ferguson as top NFL players for much longer, but they were standouts last year. Instead, the Dolphins will need youngsters like DE Philip Merling, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson, and rookie CB Vontae Davis to infuse the defense with impact in order to stay at the same level. It’s only reasonable to expect a step back from the Dolphins last year, but this team is well-coached enough by Tony Sparano and his staff and well-managed enough by Parcells to make that half step and still stay in playoff contention.

6 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times in New Orleans. (Sorry that’s a Dickens reference and not a New Orleans reference; I’ll try to do better.) Sean Payton’s offense is outstanding, led by QB Drew Brees, who is making his case to join Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the group of the best signal-callers in the league right now. Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards last year, and he should be lethal again this year. He has a deep stable of targets led by Marques Colston outside and Reggie Bush and Lance Moore inside, and there are enough other options that Brees always has an open guy to throw to. The running game lost stalwart Deuce McAllister but still has Pierre Thomas, who is a rising star, as the main back with Bush as a change-of-pace threat. The line is solid, although OLT Jammal Brown needs to bounce back from his training-camp injury to keep things moving at full effectiveness. While the offense is a galaxy of stars, the defense too often looks like a Confederacy of Dunces. (There’s your Nola literary reference!) The defense was gashed over and over again last year, and that’s what forced the Saints into last place in the competitive NFC South. New coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his attacking style (he’s from the Jeff Fisher/Buddy Ryan school of defense), but does he have the pieces? The defensive line has talent in Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they don’t produce nearly often enough. The return of second-year DT Sedrick Ellis from injury should help. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma must prove that he’s more than just a tackler, and in the secondary the Saints hope the additions of CBs Jabari Greer (free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (first round) help stabilize what has been a subpar unit. The offense is good enough that even a slight swing up in defensive performance could make the Saints the sixth worst-to-first team in the NFC South in the last nine years, but counting on this collection to deliver is risky. So for now, we’ll count the Saints among the fringe playoff contenders who have a reasonable hope to go 9-7.

5 – Chicago Bears – In Chicago, it’s all Jay Cutler, all the time, because the Bears are so psyched about having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for the first time since the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cutler has a great arm and a prickly personality, but he definitely is an upgrade for the Bears. The question is who he’s going to throw the ball to, and the answer should be tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, who had  54 catches and five touchdowns last year, is the most potent of the Bears’ solid cadre of supplemental receivers. RB Matt Forte, who’s great carrying the ball, is also a big threat as a receiver, and TE Desmond Clark is solid both blocking and receiving. But Cutler doesn’t have great outside receivers. Devin Hester is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, but he’s not a natural receiver. Earl Bennett, Cutler’s college teammate at Vanderbilt, didn’t have a single catch in his rookie season. So Cutler will have to spread the ball around instead of relying on studs like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal as he did in Denver. The Bears’ offensive line is OK blocking for Forte and the run game, but changes at tackle mean an aging Orlando Pace and an unproven Chris Williams (like Cutler a first-rounder from Vandy) will have to deliver time for Cutler to throw. On defense, the Bears have a great reputation based on great history, but there are questions. DT Tommie Harris, the disruptive engine that makes everything go, is battling knee injuries and probably won’t be 100 percent at all this year. The question becomes whether he can make plays in his current state. DE Alex Brown is a good pass rusher, but other options like Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson can help him. At linebacker, Brian Urlacher’s performance is slipping from its peak, but not so rapidly that he can’t be an asset. Lance Briggs is probably the bigger playmaker in that unit. The real questions the Bears face on defense are in the secondary, where CB Nathan Vasher has really slipped and CB Charles Tillman is hurt. If the Bears don’t find stability there, Cutler will have to be a shootout machine even more than he was in Denver last year. The Bears went 9-7 last year, which was probably an overachievement, but even with Cutler they’ll need to answer a lot of questions to have a winning record again. A .500 mark seems more likely.

5 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s the same old story for the Bengals this year. Yes, they have talent. But they also have character problems. Usually, the character problems win. But there were signs of life for Cincy at the end of last year, as the Bungles started 0-8 but finished 4-3-1. The biggest sign of life now is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who is still an upper-echelon guy in the NFL. When he went out last year with a shoulder injury, the Bengals fell apart because backup Ryan Fitzpatrick just wasn’t good enough. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s aiming for holdovers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry and newcomers Laveranues Coles and TE Chase Coffman. That’s a strong group despite the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, especially if Henry (usually a troublemaker) is as focused and determined as he appeared to be in the preseason. The Bengals’ running game should be better with a full season from Cedric Benson, who found a good fit in Cincy after busting out in Chicago. The offensive line is a pretty tough unit, but there are questions, especially since rookie ORT Andre Smith held out so long. Defensively, the Bengals made progress last year. Domata Peko is an underrated defensive tackle, and the linebacker corps is getting younger and better with second-year man Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga. The Bengals also have promising corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and they brought in S Roy Williams from Dallas, who can still be a big hitter as long as they don’t ask him to do much in pass coverage. There’s talent here,  and head coach Marvin Lewis had won at least seven games every year until last season. That decline can be largely attributed to Palmer’s absence, and that makes a return to respectability possible. The playoffs are still a long shot, because it’s hard to imagine Cincy passing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but a .500 record is a goal that can be reached.

5 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans, in some quarters, are a trendy pick to make the jump. It’s easy to see why that pick is trendy. The offense is loaded with playmakers, starting with WR Andre Johnson, who can make an argument for being the best receiver in the league. He’s not alone, though, because WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Steve Slaton are all dangerous when they get the ball in their hands, and they all get the ball in their hands often. The triggerman is Matt Schaub, who is an above-average quarterback when he stays healthy. That just hasn’t happened often enough, as Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons. His backup, likely Rex Grossman, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performer who won’t match Schaub’s productivity often enough. It would help if the Texans’ offensive line continued to develop, because that unit is still a question mark. On defense, Houston has spent a ton of high picks with mixed results. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has turned into an elite defensive end, and he could surpass his 12-sack total from last year if free-agent signee Antonio Smith can draw some coverage. But DT Amobi Okoye followed up a good rookie season with a so-so sophomore one, and fellow former first-rounder Travis Johnson was so disappointing he was dealt to San Diego. Still, there’s some havoc-wreaking potential up front. At linebacker, rookie Brian Cushing could provide playmaking ability to supplement what tackle-machine MLB DeMeco Ryans can do. In the secondary, Houston has an unsung corner in Fred Bennett and a hyped corner in Dunta Robinson, whose feast or famine tendencies could be even more pronounced after he held out the entire preseason. There’s a lot of flashy talent on this team, but they haven’t been able to put it together to get past 8-8 in their franchise history. The guess here is that something – a Schaub injury or something else – will come up to keep them from jumping that hurdle again in ’09.

5 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Usually a contender, the Jaguars fell apart last year, in large part because of widespread offensive line issues. So it makes sense that Jacksonville made offensive line priority No. 1 in the offseason by signing longtime Eagles OT Tra Thomas and then drafting Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the first two rounds. There’s now a lot more depth on that unit, which should translate to more offensive production. David Garrard is a solid quarterback, though he’s yet to show that he can stand out from the rest of the NFL pack at that position. And RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a pinball-shaped dynamo who has produced both as a runner and a receiver. It will be interesting to see if Jones-Drew can maintain his big-play potential now that he’s more of a featured back instead of a complement to the departed Fred Taylor. Along with remaking the offensive line, the Jags also redid their entire WR corps, with Torry Holt coming over to provide veteran wile and production and youngsters like Mike Sims-Walker, Jarrett Dillard, and Mike Thomas to fill out the unit. It would help if TE Marcedes Lewis continues to develop and if Troy Williamson finally lives up to the potential he showed as a first-round pick back in Minnesota. On defense, the Jags lost some of their identity by letting Marcus Stroud go to Buffalo in ’08. Stroud’s former running mate, John Henderson, has shown inconsistent production and a spotty work ethic that keeps him from being an impact player. Young DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t make a splash as rookies, and the Jaguars need them to take two or three steps up this year to make the front seven scary. At least Jacksonville has a top-flight corner in Rashean Mathis, who is probably the best corner you’ve never heard of. S Reggie Nelson is a playmaker too. While the Jags can’t possibly have the injury issues they had last year, there are still too many questions in too many places to consider them a real threat to contend with Tennessee or even Indy and Houston in the south. Given the strength of their division, Jack Del Rio’s crew is in a battle just to avoid being in last place again. They may win a few rounds of that fight, but they’re not getting past the .500 mark.

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Last year, the 49ers started 2-7, changed head coaches by installing Mike Singletary, and then surged to a 5-2 finish. Singletary knows what kind of team he wants – a smashmouth, run-first unit on offense and an attacking crew on defense. The question for this team isn’t style but personnel. Shaun Hill is effective at quarterback, but he’s not a standout. The receivers, led by vet Isaac Bruce and holdover Josh Morgan, are nothing special. TE Vernon Davis, though he showed signs of getting it at the end of last season, still hasn’t come close to living up to his top-10 draft status. And Frank Gore, a solid runner, is sometimes too injury prone to last. Still, given the talent on offense, a run game featuring Gore and perhaps rookie Glen Coffee is the best approach, and Singletary wants to play that style, so at least that’s a fit. The offensive line has no monster talents, but it will be tough and physical, which is a start. On defense, the Niners really have only one standout – MLB Patrick Willis, who can make plays sideline to sideline and will make virtually every tackle in between. It remains to be seen, though, if this defense can move from being tough to being dangerous on the pass rush. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson is the most likely candidate to lead such a transition, but that’s far from a sure thing. The Niners suffered a big loss when CB Walt Harris suffered a season-ending injury in minicamps, but Nate Clements is still an above-average corner, and vet Dre Bly could help. The 49ers have attitude and hope, but the talent level isn’t there for a major run. If the NFC West is won at 9-7 again, the 49ers could be in the picture, but if Arizona steps forward, San Fran doesn’t have long enough legs to keep up. A .500 record is a far more likely outcome.

4 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills, perhaps sensing that they were irrelevant, signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to a one-year deal. As a one-year gamble, it makes sense, but if you believe that T.O. is enough to put the Bills over the top, you’re fooling yourself. While the Bills have some good players, there are far too many holes for this team to contend against a powerhouse like New England or even a solid squad like Miami. Owens and Lee Evans make a dynamic receiver duo, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish provide great depth at the position. But Trent Edwards has yet to show that he’s a big-time quarterback who can get the ball to all those targets, and even if he’s capable the offensive line is just too young (starting rookie OGs Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) to provide consistent protection. The run game with Marshawn Lynch is OK, or maybe even a little above average, but Lynch must sit out the first three games of the season. The fact that the Bills canned coordinator Turk Schonert just before the season shows that they still haven’t settled on what they want their offensive identity to be. On defense, the Bills need DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to live up to the pass-rush potential they’ve shown at times but not consistently. Rookie Aaron Maybin can be part of the solution there, but he’s not big enough to be play a heavy load of snaps. LB Paul Pozluszny is a quality player, but he’s not going to provide juice at that position. One thing the Bills do have is good corners in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. If the D can get pass rush pressure, those corners can take advantage, and they’re extremely dangerous on returns. The Bills are a weird team in that they have good pieces on some levels and very few pieces on others, and that’s going to lead to inconsistency that will ultimately doom their playoff hopes – or even their dreams of a .500 record.

4 (con’t) – New York Jets – New head coach Rex Ryan isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He’s challenging opposing players, making bold proclamations, and basically just making himself known. Unlike most new head coaches, he also takes over a team that at 9-7 was competitive last year. But it remains to be seen whether the Jets can match even that moderate level of success with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ offense will have to rely on the running game, led by the dependable Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington, to carry them. The fact that the offensive line, led by C Nick Mangold and veteran OG Alan Faneca, is of high quality will help. But the Jets really don’t have a lot of receiving threats to help Sanchez – only TE Dustin Keller is a true big-play threat, and only WR Jerricho Cotchery is of starting caliber on the outside. The offense will need the defense to keep them in games. Ryan brought ILB Bart Scott over from Baltimore with him to make sure his scheme and, as importantly, his personality translated to his new setting. He and fellow ILB David Harris make a terrific twosome inside. But the Jets don’t have the pass-rushing studs that Ryan enjoyed with the Ravens. Calvin Pace, who had a solid season last year, will miss the first four games because of suspension, and ’08 first-rounder Vernon Gholston was a ghost as a rookie. NT Kris Jenkins is a massive mound of man in the middle, but he wore down and lost effectiveness as the season wore on. The Jets need to do a better job of giving him breaks, but they don’t really have the depth to be able to do so. In the secondary, the Jets have a playmaker in S Kerry Rhodes and a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis. There are a lot of good pieces on this team, especially on defense, but the lack of an outside pass rush or an outside passing game will ultimately prove fatal. Ryan should be able to get 6 wins or so easily, but the next three needed for playoff consideration will be beyond the Jets’ reach.

4 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – At one point, I had the Seahawks slated to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 debacle and win the NFC West. But the signs in training camp haven’t been good, and the offensive line has been hit by injuries significant enough to make a rebound far more improbable. New head coach Jim Mora gets QB Matt Hasselbeck back to begin the season which is good; without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere. But with him, their version of the West Coast offense can be potent enough. Last year, the Seahawks went through so many wide receivers that the offense never had a chance to develop rhythm or thrive. By adding reliable WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks got a No. 1 receiver who can take the pressure off their complementary players. The best of those complements is TE John Carlson, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Seattle’s running game won’t scare anyone with vets Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but at least both players can catch the ball out of the backfield. Up front, both OLT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer suffered training-camp injury setbacks that will sideline them to begin the season. That’s a huge problem that could really inhibit the offense early. Defensively, the Seahawks have a solid pass-rusher in Patrick Kearney, but he doesn’t have much help up front. Free-agent Colin Cole was a nice addition, but he can’t make up for the departure of Rocky Bernard. The Seahawks have invested heavily at linebacker with first-rounder Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and Lofa Tatupu, and while that group is good vs. the pass and the run, they’re going to have to force some turnovers and get some sacks for this defense to work. Losing CB Marcus Trufant for at least the first six games of the season is another injury issue for the Seahawks to overcome. At his best, he’s a premium cover corner, but injuries kept him from being at his best last year as well as this one. In a best-case scenario, you could see Seattle making a playoff run, but injuries have already taken that scenario off the table. Instead, the likely scenario is a third-place finish in the NFC West.

4 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – In a tough division, the Redskins are falling behind. Offensively, QB Jason Campbell just hasn’t progressed enough to be the franchise’s standard-bearer. He will finally get to play a second season under the same offensive coordinator this year, but the Redskins have so little faith in him that his leash is incredibly short. He doesn’t exactly have wonderful targets to help him. Santana Moss is a good but not great receiver, and Chris Cooley is just a hair below Pro Bowl level at tight end. Young receivers like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas would help, but they’re not emerging at this point. The run game is strong with Clinton Portis, but he’s one of those backs with so many carries in his back pocket that you wonder how much longer it will be until he begins to slip. The offensive line is already slipping, with players like OLT Chris Samuels beginning to show their age. Defensively, the Redskins need pass rush. Rookie Brian Orakpo is the most likely person to provide that rush outside, and high-dollar DT Albert Haynesworth can do the same inside. If they both become playmakers, then the Redskins D will have sharper teeth than in years past. MLB London Fletcher is still an effective clean-up ‘backer, and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton are a young duo that is an asset as well. Plus, CB DeAngelo Hall played well after his complete failure of a tenure in Oakland, and Carlos Rogers has come around too. There are a lot of nice pieces in place in Washington, but many of the ones on offense are getting old just as the pieces on defense are coming on. If the planets align, it’ll work, even in a tough division. But the odds of the planets aligning are just too slim to count on much – in large part because Planet Campbell is so far in outer orbit that he won’t come around quickly enough.

3 – Cleveland Browns – The Dawg Pound had better hope new coach Eric Mangini knows what he’s doing, because his “reclamation” project looks more like razing the foundation. Kellen Winslow is gone, WR Braylon Edwards and DE Corey Williams are rumored to be next, and Mangini seems to believe that keeping his starting quarterback a secret is a good idea. Whether it’s Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts,  he’s going to wish he had better targets. Edwards is talented but inconsistent catching the ball, and aside from Josh Cribbs there’s little big-play ability. Jamal Lewis is a workhorse running back who is becoming more of a plowhorse by the carry, but at least rookie James Davis shows promise. The Browns do have a building block in OLT Joe Thomas, and they dealt out of a top-5 draft position to take C Alex Mack, who could develop into a solid guy too. Of course, Mangini will have to start Mack for that to happen, but the Mangenius is too smart for that. On defense, Shaun Rogers is one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league, but Williams struggled to move from a 4-3 tackle to a 3-4 end. Former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley has shown pass-rush potential from the OLB spot in the past, but last year he disappointed. One player who didn’t disappoint was ILB D’Qwell Jackson, who established himself as a tackling machine. In the secondary, Mangini is counting on Abram Elam, who came over in the draft-day dealing but who never could establish himself as a full-time starter with the Jets. The Browns have a few premium players, but not enough, and Mangini’s insistence on having things his way will lead to a step back before it leads to any steps forward.

3 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – There are teams that are bad, and there are teams that are bad with a plan. The Chiefs are bad, but they have a plan that should pay off – just not this year. New GM Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley brought in QB Matt Cassel to run the offense going forward, and if Cassel can approach the ability he showed in New England last year, that will be a good move. Cassel has one stud receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley showed his potential more frequently last year than he had in the past. Vet Bobby Engram provides stability to help the offense keep moving in the short term. The run game still revolves around Larry Johnson, who actually had decent stats when he played last year. He’s still an above-average NFL back. Haley knows what he wants his offense to look like, so much so that he canned coordinator Chan Gailey just before the system to make sure that the offense is structured his way. The Chiefs are still looking for OL help and depth, but they do have a cornerstone in OLT Branden Albert. On defense, the Chiefs are moving to a 3-4, and we can expect them to go through the normal growing pains. First-rounder Tyson Jackson must settle in as a keystone defensive end, like Richard Seymour used to be, in order to make the front line work. Glenn Dorsey, a top-5 pick two years ago, doesn’t really fit this system, and so he might end up being moved for cents on the dollar. The Chiefs brought in Mike Vrabel from New England to help make the transition and hopefully to help OLB Tamba Hali, the team’s best pass rusher, adjust to the new system. Hali and Jackson are the key pieces up front; their fates will largely determine the fate of the defense. The Chiefs don’t have enough premium players to compete — only Bowe, Albert, Hali, and maybe Jackson and Cassel fit that bill – but they should be better this year. And if Pioli and Haley can upgrade the talent level going into next year, this team could start to take a leap.

3 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – When I first started the preview process, I pegged the Rams as the worst team in the league. But the more I thought and prepared, the more I realized that there is hope in St. Louis. That hope is mostly because Steve Spagnuolo comes to a team that has some defensive building blocks in place. DE Chris Long had just four sacks in his rookie season, but he should become a solid run-stopping defensive end with pass rush potential. (Think of Justin Smith or Philip Daniels at their best.) Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis steps into the middle to provide stability and solid tackling, and that should free OLB Will Witherspoon to roam and make more plays like he used to in Carolina. And the secondary has unknown but quality players in CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe. This is a defense on the rise. The problem is offensively, where neither QB Marc Bulger nor RB Steven Jackson has been able to stay healthy enough to produce. While Jackson is a good bet to bounce back, it’s likely Bulger’s best days are over. What won’t help Bulger is the fact that his best receivers are an over-the-hill TE Randy McMichael and under-the-hill WRs Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson. Avery needs to emerge as a true No. 1 guy for the Rams offense to click, and while he has the potential to do so, it may still be a year early for that. What will help Bulger, who has been battered as much as any NFL quarterback in recent years, is the addition of rookie OT Jason Smith. The Rams are starting Smith on the right side but need to move him to the left tackle spot ASAP instead of trying to salvage former first-rounder Alex Barron who has proven he can’t do that job. The Rams will be better than last year’s 2-win team, but ultimately Bulger will cost them the chance to leap ahead into playoff contention. Still, five or six wins would show Rams fans that the hope they want really is there.

2 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. So Jay Cutler is gone and Brandon Marshall is very unhappy, leaving the Broncos without their two most impactful players from ’08. Without that impact, there’s little hope in Denver this year. Cutler’s replacement, Kyle Orton, is a competent NFL quarterback, but he has yet to show that he’s better than that. He has one terrific slot-type receiver in Eddie Royal (think Wes Welker from the scheme McDaniels coordinated in New England), and if Marshall is willing to play, he’ll be a great asset outside. The depth at receiver is spotty, although TE Tony Scheffler (who was in McDaniels’ doghouse early) is a really good weapon in the passing game. Denver’s running game will revolve mainly around rookie Knowshon Moreno, who has loads of potential. Denver does have a strong offensive line, with OLT Ryan Clady back after a sterline rookie season. ORG Chris Kuper and ORT Ryan Harris are quite good as well. So there is hope on offense, even with the passing game changes. The problems are on defense, where the Broncos are trying to install a 3-4 scheme that they don’t yet have the personnel for. Rookie Robert Ayers fits into the OLB role on one side, and free-agent Ronald Fields fits as a nose tackle. But the other main contributors from last year – Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams – have to prove they can fit this scheme. And unless they can, the defense will be average at best. Denver also reworked the secondary around Champ Bailey, signing veteran safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman. There’s just been too much upheaval in Denver this year for me to feel good about what the Broncos are doing, and this team could easily bottom out this year. McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

2 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – After an 0-16 debacle, the Lions are trying to remake everything. I believe they’ve gotten the right guy at the helm to do it. Jim Schwartz is a tough yet progressive coach who assimilates as much info as he can to make a decision. That’s a crucial quality as the Lions turn over a huge percentage of their roster. QB Matthew Stafford will start out of the gate as a rookie, and while he will struggle, he has a big arm and a bigger security blanket in all-league receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have worked on acquiring receiver depth this offseason to help Stafford, and they drafted rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew as well to help the cause. The running game features Kevin Smith, who had an OK season as a rookie and who still has the potential to flourish in better surroundings. Detroit’s offensive line still needs work; the good players are old, and the young players aren’t good yet. That’s not a good combo. Defensively, the Lions added vets like LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon to help stabilize a unit that was awful last year. None of those guys (except for maybe Peterson) can still be a good playmaker, but they won’t blow assignments like the Lions did so often last year. Rookies FS Louis Delmas and DT Sammie Hill will start and try to start a youth movement. Detroit still has a long way to go, but they’ll be better this year and a little more competitive. Even a three- or four-win season would be a step in the right direction, and more wins than that could be cause for celebration. Don’t count on celebration, but this ship is finally pointed in the right direction.

1 – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders’ dysfunction has been evident all offseason. To wit: the last-second trade for DE Richard Seymour; signing guys like Jeff Garcia and Terdell Sands and then cutting them before the season; and of course the reputed game of Tom Cable’s Punchout in a coaches meeting. (We’re not saying Cable punched a guy; we’re saying some people said he did.)  Hey, at least they didn’t fire their offensive coordinator during training camp. (Oh wait; they don’t really have one.) You can say a lot about the way the Raiders are run off the field, but let’s look at what Oakland has on the field. They do have a great stable of running backs with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. They do have a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell who still has promise that he could grow into. They do have an underrated young tight end in Zach Miller. They do have the best cornerback in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha. They have a terrific young linebacker in Kirk Morrison. So there are pieces in place. But the Raiders don’t have proven wide receivers, especially with Chaz Schilens sidelined as the season starts. They don’t have a great offensive line, which mitigates the impact of the running game and makes Russell’s development difficult. The Raiders don’t have an impactful front four on defense, unless Seymour and Greg Ellis find a fountain of youth. They don’t have great depth anywhere. This roster has a few nice pieces, but there’s simply not enough quality in enough places for them to compete regularly. That’s poor front-office planning. So while the Raiders may jump up and win a game or two you don’t expect them to during the year, they’re going to be among the most hopeless teams out there on a week-to-week basis.

1 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s a bad year to be a pirate in the NFL, because the Raiders and the Buccaneers begin the season on the lowermost level of our comparison. The Bucs unloaded stalwarts like Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard, instituting a new era under new head coach Raheem Morris. The beginning of the era is going to be very bumpy. Byron Leftwich is the starter at quarterback, but his slow delivery is going to get him, a receiver, the offensive line, or all three killed. He’s simply not good enough, but he’s a good guy who can be a place-holder until Josh Freeman is ready midseason. The running game features a returning Cadillac Williams (is he healthy?), import Derrick Ward, and holdover Earnest Graham. Leftwich is throwing to Antonio Bryant, who had a breakout year last year in his return from utter NFL obscurity, and new tight end Kellen Winslow. These are guys who have been good but who aren’t dependable in the least. The offensive line is OK but not great, although OLT Donald Penn is a prospect to watch. The fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodinski was jettisoned just before the season isn’t a good sign that all these pieces are coming together on offense. On defense is where the Bucs’ makeover is going to take time. The only front seven guy who is a building block for sure is MLB Barrett Ruud, although DE Gaines Adams has shown potential. In the secondary, safety Tanard Jackson is suspended for the first four games, but he and Aqib Talib are supposed to be the guys who take over a unit that has been Ronde Barber’s for years. The Bucs simply haven’t replaced the talent they got rid of in the offseason, which means that they’re going to struggle this year. The fact that Leftwich just isn’t good enough will make those struggles more pronounced, to the point that the Bucs could be the worst team in the league. Morris may be the guy for the future, but his beginning right now isn’t going to be pretty.

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FR: Strangest Sights

We’re in the dead part of the offseason, between organized team activities and training camp, which leaves few newsy items to blog about. (I actually updated this post today with a long-snapper who got released. Seriously.) But that does leave us time to start reflecting on the coming season. Here are some of the changes that will lead to the strangest sights on NFL fields come fall. 10 is the sight that will look the strangest; 1 is the sight that’s the least surprising. As always, feel free to add your own ideas via comments.

 10 – QB Brett Favre as a Viking – OK, this isn’t final yet, but it will be weird to see Favre wearing purple. Even his one-year dalliance as a Jet won’t lessen the shock of this sight, because at least the Jets wore a shade of green close to Green Bay’s. That sight will be almost as weird as seeing Favre in his original Falcons garb.

10 (con’t) – WR Torry Holt as a Jaguar – Since the Favre sight might not happen (yeah, right), we decided to include a guaranteed strange sight on the 10 level. And to me, it’s Holt. Holt is an iconic player of the last decade, and him going from the Greatest Show on Turf colors to Jacksonville’s green and black – which still look a little closer to Arena League unis than legit NFL duds to me – is going to be strange. But that’s the kind of sticker shock you get when an icon moves on.

9 – S Brian Dawkins as a Bronco – Dawkins was the heart and soul of Philly’s defense during its great success of recent years, and now he’s changing into Broncos orange and blue. To me, this sight will be even stranger than John Lynch in a Broncos’ uniform. Dawkins was Mr. Eagle as much as anyone except for Donovan McNabb, and so to see him dressed differently on Sundays will be strange.

9 (con’t) OT Orlando Pace as a Bear – Holt wasn’t the only icon the Rams released this offseason. Pace, a future Hall of Famer, also moved on. Because the Bears uniforms are so classic, Pace will fit our eyes wearing those colors a little better than Holt in the Jax uni, but the sight will still be odd.

8 – TE Tony Gonzalez as a Falcon – We’ve seen countless pictures of Gonzalez as a Chief, and now he moves into Falcons colors. The fact that both teams wear red jerseys will make this transition a little less shocking, but the move from the Arrowhead to the Falcon is still a shock. Gonzalez has been the Chiefs’ top player over the last decade, but other players like the late Derrick Thomas seem to be more iconic in K.C.

8 (con’t) – S Roy Williams as a Bengal – Williams isn’t an iconic player, but he moves from an iconic team to a team with one of the most gimmicky uniforms. I personally like the Bengals’ stripes, but that’s a far cry from the simple lone blue star that Williams wore for so long. Those aesthetics are why this sight moves so far up this list.

7 – RB Fred Taylor as a Patriot – Taylor is probably the Jaguars’ greatest player ever, but because that team got more limited TV exposure than other squads, the image of him running in the Jax uniform isn’t burned into our retinas the way others like Holt or Dawkins are. That, combined with the fact that we’re used to seeing veterans pop up as Patriots late in their career, makes this sight not as strange. (Taylor is one of this year’s crop of Patriot veteran imports, along with Joey Galloway and Shawn Springs, among others.)

7 (con’t) – QB Jay Cutler as a Bear – Cutler wasn’t in Denver long enough for us to focus on his Broncos image, but the sight of a big-time quarterback wearing Bears colors is going to be strange in its own right. If Cutler succeeds in Soldier Field, we will remember him as a Bear, not as a Bronco.

6 – LB Keith Brooking as a Cowboy – Brooking has actually been Mr. Falcon over the last several years, but most of us have paid more attention to QBs Michael Vick and Matt Ryan. But Brooking, an Atlanta native, moves to Dallas this year, and it will be strange to see him roaming around the new Cowboys palace instead of the Georgia Dome.

6 (con’t) – WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh as a Seahawk – Houshmandzadeh hasn’t gotten the pub he deserves for his stellar play over recent years, and because of that we’re not used to seeing him. But the sight of his loooooong last name on a blue jersey will still take some getting used to.

5 – Colts without Tony Dungy and Broncos without Mike Shanahan – It will be strange to look on the sidelines and see a bench full of Colts but not long-time head coach Tony Dungy. And it will probably be even stranger to see the sidelines at whatever they’re calling Mile High Stadium nowadays and not see Mike Shanahan, who was in Denver even longer than Dungy was in Indy. Both of these are monumental NFL coaching changes in an offseason full of flux.

4 – WR Terrell Owens as a Bill – Owens has moved around enough that we don’t associate him with just one team. Is he a Cowboy? An Eagle? A 49er? You can’t say. But still, seeing the original diva receiva wearing Bills colors will be a shock for the first five or six highlights (or lowlights) he creates.

4 (con’t) – C Matt Birk as a Raven – Centers don’t usually get much love, but Birk was the centerpiece of the Minnesota’s stalwart offensive line for a long time. Now he moves on to Baltimore, and it will be strange to see the best Harvard product in the NFL wearing Ravens purple instead of Vikings purple.

3 – DT Albert Haynesworth as a Redskin – Haynesworth was the biggest (and most expensive) acquisition of the free-agent season, but we’ve seen him holding up the Redskins jersey so often already that the sight seems almost routine now. So while the impact of this change is significant, the shock has already lessened.

3 (con’t) – LB Bart Scott as a Jet – Scott was never the Ravens’ most prominent linebacker – Ray Lewis was, of course – but Scott was still a significant enough player that his new look in the Jets’ green and white will take some getting used to. At least his playing style will look the same, since he’s making the move to the Meadowlands alongside Rex Ryan.

2 – TE Kellen Winslow as a Buccaneer – Winslow moves teams, but he continues to wear a shade of orange (in my mind, Tampa pewter is close enough to orange) like he has at the U. of Miami and in Cleveland. So his new uniform look is close enough to his old look so as not to shock the system.

2 (con’t) – LBs Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas as Chiefs – Because Vrabel and Thomas have both played for more than one team, the fact that we remember them as a Patriot and a Dolphin, respectively, isn’t as strong as it could be. But seeing them side-by-side wearing red this fall still should cause some of us to rub our eyes.

1 – CB Ken Lucas as a Seahawk – This sight isn’t a shock, because Lucas returns to Seattle after several years in Carolina. But Lucas isn’t the strongest example of a returnee that will be not a strange but a familiar sight. That would be…

1 (con’t) – LB Jason Taylor as a Dolphin – Taylor returns to Miami after a one-year odyssey that took him from Dancing with the Stars to the Redskins. Taylor should retire as a Dolphin, and so it will be comforting to see him donning the aqua No. 55 once again in ’09.

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